- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A shortage of mental health doctors meant longer than average waits at two of Arkansas’ Veterans Affairs medical centers, even though the state’s veterans have largely escaped some of the infuriating waits experienced by VA patients in parts of the South.

The Associated Press examined waiting times at 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics during the period from Sept. 1 to Feb. 28, the months where the most detailed data was available, to gauge any changes since a scandal over delays led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and prompted lawmakers in August to pass the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act.

Overall at Arkansas’ medical centers and clinics, only 2.53 percent of appointments took longer than 30 days to complete, slightly better than the national average of 2.8 percent.

Things weren’t as rosy at the Veterans Healthcare System of the Ozarks-Fayetteville - about 3.94 percent of the appointments took 31 days or longer to complete during the six-month timespan. Mark Worley, interim medical center director at the Fayetteville facility, said the biggest hurdle in meeting the goal is staffing.

“We have a shortage in psychiatry, and we’ve been actively trying to recruit,” Worley said. “Primary-care access tends to be quicker than for psychiatry or specialty care because the patients are already assigned to a primary care team. We have two psychiatry residents who will be joining our team in July, and that should help reduce the overall wait times.”

The three veterans’ hospitals in Arkansas completed roughly the same number of medical appointments in the six-month period, but officials said the high demand for psychiatry services at two facilities increased the percentage of appointments that were delayed.

The John L. McClellan VA Memorial Center in Little Rock was able to complete all but 1.3 percent of its appointments within a 30-day window. It refers psychiatry and several other high-demand appointments to the neighboring Eugene J. Towbin VA HealthCare Center in North Little Rock, where the timeliness rate was slightly higher than the national average with about 3 percent.

Cody Sublett, a 30-year-old Army veteran, said he has opted several times in recent years to seek treatment outside of the VA, including for a gastrointestinal issue. Sublett says he still sees a mental health professional at Towbin, at his wife’s request, but he has considered finding help elsewhere.

“I go in and (the doctor) asks me the same 10 questions and then renews a prescription. That’s what happens every time,” he said. “I’ve asked to see another doctor, but they said it would be five or six months before someone else could see me.”

Staffing issues also led to a marked increase in the number of appointments not completed within 30 days in January and February at one of the state’s 15 rural VA outpatient clinics. The El Dorado clinic was below the national average of 2.8 percent during the last four months of 2014, but jumped to 5.65 percent in January and 7.69 percent in February.

Patricia Hill, the spokesman for the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, which oversees the El Dorado facility, said the system is actively trying to recruit primary-care physicians to replace missing staffers.

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